The wasp palace

IMG_5547

The afternoon had turned out perfectly nice for beekeeping. A low sun brought its warmth closer to the bees who were flying out and about like on a spring day. Mushrooms with long shadows had popped up all over the place to remind me it was autumn.

It was the second Saturday of the month which meant that Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for a workshop. But I was not the only visitor to the apiary, there were also the wasps. Last Sunday I had laid a couple of traps to deter wandering wasps from bothering our hives. Yesterday I found out it might not be so easy.

IMG_5576

This is as close as l’m going to get to a (suspected) wasps’ nest, even in a bee suit. A small burrow in the ground with fast-flying insects coming and going in a blur. Too small for bumbles and too many for solitaries. Had I stumbled on a wasp palace?

Wherever the wasps were hiding, the Wasp Queen had given orders to attack Queen Chamomile’s bees. As Emily arrived and stepped through the mushroom path, I had found a dent in the woodwork of Chamomile’s hive that hadn’t been there before. It seemed too early for woodpeckers who would still have lots of other tasty things to eat. “They don’t usually become a problem until the ground gets hard,” said Emily.

IMG_5549

EDIT: wood damage from rot, woodpeckers or very determined wasps! Some helpful suggestions in the comments below.

Irritated by the wasps circling the hive boxes like sharks in the water, I looked at the front and saw a row of wasps scraping and gnawing at the wood, determined to get inside.

Luckily, Emily and I had some spare duct tape and together we taped around the vulnerable seams of wood between the hive boxes and the crownboard. The wasps weren’t happy and retreated back to their queen for new orders.

IMG_5580

There is nothing more tempting to a beekeeper on a sunny day than a wooden box full of insects. But we resisted the temptation to open the hives. The opportunity for wasps to fly in and stress the bees would be too great. Instead we cleaned and topped up feeders with syrup.

We also left small bags of dry sugar under the roofs of Melissa’s and Chamomile’s hives as an experiment. Emily had read that some beekeepers feed hives dry sugar in autumn and spring, leaving the bees to add the water themselves. Though all our colonies are heavy with winter stores, Melissa’s inquisitive workers immediately checked out the spilled sugar. We’ll see next week if they liked it or not, as it’s a useful tip to know if we’re ever caught short of syrup or fondant.

IMG_5584

We then walked around the apiary to visit the other beekeepers’ hives. The new bees living in David’s old green hive seemed much better tempered and were content for us to watch them come and go. Although I spotted a hitchhiker on a returning forager (image above, bottom left).

Emily found a worker crawling beneath the apiary’s top bar hive with shrivelled wings, likely caused by deformed wing virus (DWV). Another clue that varroa was always lurking and that we must be ever vigilant against bee diseases even after a good season.

IMG_5583

The wasps would probably finish off the hapless bee. They are, after all, useful scavengers. Incidentally, we should also thank wasps for beer and bread.

A new beekeeper had arrived not realising that everyone else was at the scout hut. He had recently got a colony of bees from John Chapple and was giddy with excitement. “I can’t stop watching them.”

John Chapple would tell us to leave the bees alone as, despite appearances being contrary with bees flying in and out with brightly coloured pollen, they were making preparations for winter. Preparations that would be undone by nosy beekeepers pulling at frames to say hello.

IMG_5581

With that we closed the gate and left the bees, and the wasps and the mushrooms, to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in peace.

Postscript notes
Aside from the wasps, this has been a great year beekeeping. Check out my new blog index for posts on this year’s and past year’s beekeeping adventures, along with posts about lots of other things!

The Great Honey Bottle

IMG_5392

Often when people meet me and find out I am a beekeeper, they say: “Taking honey from bees is cruel, isn’t it?” I don’t really mind because ‘they’ are usually (self-confessed) vegans and all I have to say is: “Yes, but I don’t eat almonds” to confuse them and make my escape.

Of course, as a beekeeper I don’t think taking honey from the bees is cruel. To me, a single jar of honey at the end of the season is a sign of strong and healthy colony and a well-managed hive. The honey harvest is a culmination of a successful partnership between the bees and their beekeeper.

IMG_5406

Today Emily (above) and I celebrated our harvest with a great honey bottling session. We poured and sieved our light golden and mildly sweet honey into containers and jars to be divided between us. I’m planning to label my jars ‘Myrtle’s honey’ after the queen who successfully led the colony for the past two years.

Ah, beautiful jars of honey – a taste for all our family and friends, thank you Myrtle.

IMG_5414

If you’re not a regular reader of my blog, be assured that no bees were squashed or maimed in the making of our honey. Not a tiny wing or little leg was found as we decanted the precious golden liquid. Emily and I take care to clear bees from the supers by gently brushing and handpicking stragglers from every frame before they are taken home. Although, I should say that with only four hives we have the luxury of doing this.

Later in the afternoon we returned the last of the wet super frames to the apiary for the bees to clean up and add to their winter stores. The elder beekeepers were surprised that we had returned so much honey in the frames for the bees and thought they had better check to see it was ok. Thumbs were out and honeycomb was crushed, “Blackberry and lime,” was John’s verdict.

IMG_5407

Though the days are growing shorter, the autumn has been mild and there was still time to look at our bees. Melissa (Myrtle’s daughter) has got her bees to work filling up another super, which along with the honey we have returned gives the colony more than enough stores for winter. Melissa’s workers had also left a mischievous honeycomb surprise in the hive after four weeks of varroa treatments. But more on that next week.

We took a look under the crownboards of our other colonies to see them calm and content, and building up good stores. Although someone needs to tell the bees that winter is coming as they are still very active: eggs, brood and even drone found in Pepper’s hive.

IMG_5410

We have just finished the Apiguard treatments for varroa and the mite drop has shown that both the treatment has worked and that sadly varroa often flourishes when the colony does. Emily and I are both worried about Chamomile’s sickly hive, which we will try to treat further with a thymol mix for the syrup next week.

I’ve never met a beekeeper who isn’t obsessed about the wellbeing and survival of their bees. When many of the beekeepers at Ealing apiary went to a showing of More than honey, a Swiss documentary directed by Marcus Imhoof, they were shocked to watch the treatment of bees at an almond plantation in California. At a larger commercial scale for the pollination industry, the picture for honeybees is grim as colonies are mechanically processed by machines that crush and grind bees in their hundreds. I had mixed reactions to the film – awe at the spectacular scenes of life inside the hive and horror at the management of colonies as nests are torn apart into boxes of ‘brood’ and ‘honey’.

IMG_5405

That’s why I don’t eat almonds, or buy almond oil. It probably doesn’t make a difference but I just can’t bring myself to make a purchase without thinking of that picture of suffering honeybees at the almond plantation. When I am asked what I think about taking honey, I suppose that I could explain how most beekeepers care greatly for their bees and how on the whole there are worse things that you could eat. What I really want to do on a Saturday afternoon though is enjoy beekeeping and having a nice cup of tea with the beekeepers, so I usually say nothing and hope the questioner goes away.

IMG_5409

Last autumn I remember a visitor to the apiary who told me he was a vegan soon after we met, perhaps he could tell that I am a butcher’s daughter as well as a beekeeper. He showed his displeasure at treating the bees with Apiguard and the use of chemicals in the hive. I didn’t really mind this either, because I had been to an excellent Bee Health Day at London Beekeepers Association at which I had made up my mind that I disliked varroa and bee diseases much more than I disliked treating my bees. But as there was tea and cake waiting on the apiary table, I hoped to make a quick getaway rather than stand around and explain about naturally occurring chemicals thymol and oxalic acid. So I said: “I’m sorry, is there a chemical on the periodic table that you don’t take offense to?” Unfortunately, smoke and mirrors failed as he persisted to poke me like a small honey-stealing bear until I finally agreed “Yes, taking honey is very cruel” and “Yes, I shouldn’t treat my hives”. That done, I apologised for going because I wanted a cup of tea at the apiary, before enjoying a slice of black pudding for my supper at home.

I suppose that I am as naughty as Melissa’s bees.

Further reading – an interesting post by Bees with eeb on The Bee Man of Orn provides beekeeping from the perspective of a migratory beekeeper.

Has the June gap come early?

june gap

After spring has flowered and before summer has quite arrived, there is a lull in foliage in the UK and Ireland which is called ‘the June gap’. As nature takes a breath before the summer rush, there are some perennial plants in gardens that help to bridge the gap but usually not enough to satisfy all pollinators.

The June gap is significant in beekeeping because by this time most colonies have built up their numbers and have many more bees to feed, or they have been split after swarming and may be small, weak and low on stores. It is another date in the beekeeping calendar when hives might, suddenly and unexpectedly, need feeding. This year I wondered if the June gap had come early after finding our colonies low on stores at the end of May.

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen's place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen’s place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

With this in mind, I left work on Wednesday night after the Queen’s parade and went to the apiary to feed the bees. All the hives have feeders under the roofs except for the hive split from Chamomile’s colony, which, not ideally for the time of year, has a bag of fondant above the crownboard. We ran out of feeders after the sudden increase in hives.

I lifted off each roof to find the feeders drained dry of syrup and bee proboscis eagerly poking under the rims to lick up the last drops. I refilled all the feeders and closed up, leaving behind happier bees.

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

So today when John drove me to the apiary, I was again heavily laden with litres of syrup and an umbrella. The forecast was dark and stormy, and though the storm had passed early this morning, the air was close and thundery. “Go and stroke all your bees,” John said, “Though it may take some time.”

A question asked by a beginner the weekend before had popped into my head as I walked towards the hives, “Isn’t it bad to feed the bees? I read that sugar is not very good for them.” Honey is better for honeybees, of course. But isn’t it also bad for the bees to starve? It’s an inconvenient truth at certain times of the year that hived bees might need feeding or they will starve and probably die.

If the bees don’t want the sugar, then they won’t take it. Experience with stronger hives, or when there is plenty of forage about, has taught me that bees wilfully ignore syrup in the roof when they don’t need it, and this often tells the beekeeper to stop feeding.

I always wonder when we are feeding our bees how other pollinators are surviving. The bees in London have beautiful gardens to visit and I have seen many big fat bumblebees foraging together.

bumblebees

A study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that bumblebees prefer safety in numbers and feed on flowers where other bees are feeding safely. You can read about it in PhysOrg ‘Safe(bee) in numbers‘.

Emily and I currently have five hives at Perivale apiary and we hope soon to combine some colonies and perhaps sell one, which will leave us with fewer, bigger and stronger hives.

Today’s inclement weather made it unlikely that we would be deeply inspecting the hives. This didn’t matter, however, as Pat had advised to give the new queens two to three weeks to lay, then decide which queens were best before uniting colonies.

20140607-174352-63832680.jpg

The sun came out long enough for us to inspect Myrtle’s hive, which is full of bees and has brood on eight to nine frames. The stores are still lower than we would like, so we decided to feed this colony another week before putting on a super.

We saw Myrtle and tried to cage her in case we needed her. However, she clearly didn’t feel like being caged and escaped twice. Myrtle’s brood pattern is patchy which might mean she is getting old. She is almost two and a half. The bees could supersede her in the autumn, which is how Myrtle herself took over the hive from her mother.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Next we checked Chili’s hive and didn’t spot the queen, but the bees were looking purposeful and Emily saw some eggs, so she is in there.

The bees were now getting fractious because of the heavy air and Alan had arrived at the apiary, so we took a break for a bee chat before inspecting the remaining three hives.

Chamomile’s bees were, as Alan said, not happy to perform. Emily spotted the queen, so we quickly closed up and fed them.

20140607-175757-64677447.jpg

Finally, our two swarmed hives. Things were not looking good here and the bees were not happy. In one hive there was no sign of the queen spotted last week and no brood. In the other we spotted a small, probably virgin, queen but again no brood. We’ll give the two new queens a week’s grace to prove themselves worthy rulers.

Sorry for the lack of honeybee and beekeeping photos in this post – the June weather hasn’t been good for either. Yesterday, however, was the 70th anniversary of D-Day and like many people, my family remembered the bravery of those who fought for our country in the World Wars and any wars, for the freedoms that we enjoy today.

Here’s a picture that my stepdad Bryan Howard posted of his RAF days on his Facebook yesterday. He’s looking very handsome in 1960 at RAF Bridgenorth.

bryanAnd here is my grandfather Kenneth Spooner, who passed away many years ago. My grandad told me tales of wild rivers, crocodiles and bush babies while on foreign duty during WWII. I hope there are no crocodiles here!

grandad

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury and the secret garden behind the waterfall

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury

‘Bee Shelter’ pointed the road sign with a pictogram of a church, leading tantalisingly off the motorway. I had seen the sign every time we drove through Gloucestershire to Hereford, and this time sighed ‘I wish we could see the Bee Shelter’. The van slowed and turned into a slip road. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. John replied ‘To find the Bee Shelter.’

It didn’t take us long to find the church of St Mary the Virgin at Hartpury, home to the Bee Shelter, and to learn there was a centuries-old tradition of beekeeping in these parts.

John parked outside and we got out to look around. There was no one else here other than sheep grazing in fields, birds warbling in trees, and bees humming in the air.

Bee Shelter sign

A sign outside the church told us that the Bee Shelter at Hartpury was rescued, repaired and rebuilt inside the church. John was intrigued and I was excited, so we pulled open the gate and went inside. St Mary’s is like a little window in time, we were both struck by its beauty and serenity. We walked along the winding path and past the source of humming – a cloud of busy dark-coloured insects so small and fast, I thought they were flies.

This way to bee shelter

There was a long stone structure up ahead that looked promising and my excitement grew as we approached. Two familiar-looking straw baskets were housed within – bee skeps! This was the Bee Shelter of Hartpury.

John stopped beneath the blossom tree to take pictures, while I ran my hands over the skeps and imagined what they must have felt and sounded like when bees lived inside.

blossom tree next to bee shelter

Here we found out more about the Bee Shelter and of beekeeping at Hartpury. The Bee Shelter is described by the International Bee Research Association as “an unique historic monument” – in fact, there are no similar structures known anywhere else in the world.

It was built in the mid-19th century by Paul Tuffley, stone mason, quarry master and beekeeper, using Cotswold stone. His exact intent is not known, but one theory suggests the Bee Shelter was for his ornamental garden in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. The structure showcases the skill of his stone masonry with gabled wall plinths, Doric columns and a ridge-crest roof. In 1852, the Bee Shelter was threatened with destruction after Tuffley’s house was repossessed by his mortgage. “It was saved by volunteers from the Gloucestershire Beekeeping Association, who dismantled it and, with the encouragement of the Principal of Hartpury Agricultural College, reassembled in the College grounds.” By the end of the 19th century, the ornamental stonework had begun to erode and the structure was saved for a second time by the Hartpury Historic Land and Buildings Trust. Restored, the Bee Shelter now “rests in peace” at St Mary’s, where it faces in the same direction (north) as its original home at Nailsworth.

Hartpury church

There is long tradition of beekeeping in Hartpury: “The Domesday Book states that Gloucester annually paid 12 sesters (23lbs) of honey to King Edward, and in 1260 it is recorded that tenants from the manor of Hartpury, owned by Gloucester Abbey, held land in return for payments of honey”. Honey and beeswax too have a close connection with the church. In ancient times, it was believed honey had a heavenly origin.

The bee shelter

I was particularly interested to find out more about the skeps used by beekeepers before the invention of the modern hive. They were traditionally made of wicker or straw and housed a smaller colony of bees than today’s wooden hives. “Contrary to current practice, a skep beekeeper encouraged swarming. He looked for swarms leaving his skeps, caught any he could and put these in an empty skep. By the end of the summer he might have two or three times as many occupied skeps as in the spring. The honey was harvested by destroying, usually over burning sulphur, a number of the colonies in the autumn, when the nectar flow diminished. These would generally have been the heaviest colonies and also any small ones than might not survive the winter. The intermediate colonies were overwintered in their skeps.”

By this time we were really running late for arriving at John’s family farm in Hereford. So we reluctantly left this peaceful place to go back to the van.

Bee boles

On our way out I stopped to look more closely at the strangely humming flies and suddenly realised they were bees! Hundreds of hundreds of tiny fuzzy black bees darting in and out of small bored holes in the ground. They moved too fast to get a good look or picture, though John got this short video:

What are these ground-dwelling and friendly bees, I wonder, masons, carpenters? They didn’t seem bothered by our curiosity – the mystery bees of Hartpury.

That was Good Friday at the start of our Easter weekend, and there was another surprise in store…

Hampton maze

On Bank Holiday Monday, John took me to the real Hampton Court in Hereford, to explore the pretty gardens and lose our way in the maze. We split up to see who would solve the maze first. I did, and then climbed the tower at the centre to wave John over. The view at the top was amazing, but there was something secret beneath.

Climbing down the narrow stone spiral staircase, we went into a long dark tunnel and emerged in a pocket of bright sunlight to find a beautiful secret garden beneath the maze and behind a waterfall…

Secret garden

Waterfall

Behind the waterfall

This was like magic! We had so much fun discovering sunken paths, hidden flower beds and stepping stones across overgrown brooks…

Secret brook

Secret steps

Sunken garden

What of our hives this spring? Visits continue to keep check of syrup and insulation in the roof (late April was chilly) and of early queen cells (unlike skep beekeepers, we don’t encourage swarming), but the bees must wait in May, which is the month of hen parties and weddings of beekeepers and beekeepers’ daughters. For now, here’s a happy honeybee foraging nectar and pollen off the cherry blossoms on the farm in Hereford.

Honeybee in blossom

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing

While listening to the restless humming inside the hives, spring seemed a long way off this weekend. Though rumours of snowdrops persist and the daylight is stretching further, I’m impatient to open our hives and see whether our queens, Myrtle, Chamomile and Chili, have survived the winter. As I walked home, I remembered this inspiring TEDTalk by Marla Spivak, a researcher in bee behaviour and biology, and watched it again for a dose of honeybee. Here it is, in case you missed it.

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing 

Our fascination for this wonderful creature, the bee, grows as does our need for them. The bees are disappearing, while there is ‘Worldwide 300% increase in crop production requiring bee pollination’, says Marla. But her talk is hopeful because it reminds us that there is much we can do to help the bee. Get planting bee-friendly flowers for spring: RHS Perfect for Pollinators Plant List.

I hope you enjoyed this video as much as I do each time.

Marla’s talk is on TED.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing.html
Her bio is available on TED’s website: http://www.ted.com/speakers/marla_spivak.html

For more TEDTalks:

TED.com http://www.ted.com/
Follow TED news on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tednews
Like TED on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TED

Walking in her footsteps

20130831-084944.jpg

The summer was too good to last and when rain broke through the gathering clouds last Saturday, the bees were spared their Apiguard treatment for another week.

Bank holiday Monday was a different story: blues skies, warm sunshine and a light breeze. As we were south-west, John and I decided to explore Carshalton, a sleepy suburban area in the borough of Sutton, Greater London.

Carshalton is situated in the valley of the River Wandle, which is the source of the village’s ponds and springs. Pretty parishes, country pubs and cottages populate this peaceful place.

image

image

We planned to walk around a beautiful park spotted on the map, but when I saw the sign ‘Honeywood Museum’ and ‘Ecology Centre’ it was game over.

image

Sutton Ecology Centre is a nature conservation area open to the public seven days a week. The grounds offer an educational wildlife trail to explore and learn about native habitats.

The centre is part of a fantastic project to encourage biodiversity gardens. Illustrated information signs were dotted along the trail to show people where to spot wildlife and how to create spaces for native habitats in their own gardens. Dragonflies flew over reeds, hoverflies dangled in the air and butterflies fluttered among trees. It was a pollinator paradise.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

We did eventually discover the park that we set out to find, populated by picnickers and squirrels, and also followed the streams and bridges across the River Wandle.

Later that day my mum sent a text that said: ‘Your ancestor called Sarah was born in Carshalton in 1848 and married William Parsons. Parsons was my grandmother’s maiden name.’

‘Emma’ and ‘Sarah’ are old family names, and as I reflected on the day having walked in the footsteps of my ancestor I wondered if Sarah Parsons had stopped beneath the same shady trees of the churchyard looking out across the ponds.

image

Next week: as I’m still on the move – Bees in the Trees!

Rain or shine, the otters like it fine

007

With the passing of the winter solstice and the lengthening of days, the bees are too busy preparing for spring for us to visit. Otters, on the other hand, are always happy to entertain their guests.

WWT London Wetland Centre is a popular nature reserve close to the heart of the city and described as a ‘haven for birds, wildlife and people’. Considering how close I live to the reserve it was the ideal place to enjoy a day out with my mum and walk-off recent over-indulgences.

It was a cold, grey Sunday with rain threatening in every cloud, but there was plenty of winter wildlife to see. The courtyard’s main glass observatory offered incredible views of the reedy lake, with ducks, geese and wading birds, against the misty, yet familiar, skyline of the BT Tower, London Eye and the Shard.

After bird watching – my mum’s a bit of a twitcher – and a walk around the lagoons, we went to see the otters being fed.

000 001

The wetland is home to a family of Asian short-clawed otters who live in a specially designed holt where visitors can watch them swim, play and feed. In the wild, Asian otters are threatened by habitat loss and hunting, so this family is part of a breeding and conservation programme. Why not the European otter? The keeper explained that the Asian otter provides better opportunities for observation and entertainment. ‘We know from experience that the Asian short-clawed otter exhibits well, whereas the European ones tend to be more solitary, more shy. If we had six or seven European otters, they would probably be at the back, drinking wine.’

The otters were fun to watch, but I’m not sure that they found us very entertaining. When they realised we didn’t have any food, they soon grew bored of us.

002 003 004 006

The sleepy otters yawned and dipped their tails in water until the keeper arrived for the daily feed. They watched him with intent as he entered the holt and chased him across the rocks till he stopped to throw pieces of meat.

008 009What followed can only be described as an otter feeding frenzy. With tiger-like teeth, they easily tore and ripped apart chunks of meat, gulping and swallowing greedily.

010 011 012

While the otters enjoyed their meal, the keeper apologised to the crowd for making a quick exit. ‘They only tolerate me when I have food, but once they know it’s gone then my ankle might look tasty,’ he explained. ‘Not that I’m scared or anything’ as he cautiously backed away from the pool. As if on cue, the otters paused tearing chunks of meat to watch his hasty retreat behind the trees at the top of the holt. They looked at each other with narrowly slit eyes, then ran across the rocks and up the hill to cut him off. There was a commotion in the bushes, but to everyone’s relief the keeper ran out with both his ankles.

013 014

These otters will eat almost anything, apparently, which made me think that this morehen was braver than the keeper as he waded in their pool.

015 015a

The otters were not the only wildlife devising plans. I saw this plotting pigeon sitting on a bridge, until he caught me watching and purposefully looked like a pigeon again.

016 016a

The ducks and geese were more relaxed and happily enjoying swimming in the lagoons as the rain began to fall. I’m not sure what type of duck this green-eyed beauty is, but the exotic-looking goose is Egyptian.

016b 016cAt 3pm it was the bird feed with the warden. So we watched as the geese eagerly waddled up and the children threw feed in the water. By this time we were getting cold so it was time to leave, but I look forward to returning in spring to see more wetland wildlife including slow worms, dragonflies and bats.

017 018 019

I really recommend a visit to WWT London Wetland Centre. Rain, wind or shine – the animals don’t mind. There is lots to see in all seasons, although for me the highlight was the otter feed.

A very Happy New Year everyone and may 2013 bring luck, love, prosperity and good fortune!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Related links

WWT London Wetland Centre
Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT)
Nothing hotter than an otter – Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland writes about her visit to WWT London Wetland Centre
ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’: dreams do come true – my favourite animal adventure of 2012, being a zoo keeper at London Zoo for the day